What Is The Respiratory System?
The respiratory system is a group of organs responsible for bringing in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. This system includes the lungs, nose and mouth, sinuses, trachea, bronchi, cilia, bronchial tubes, and diaphragm.
- The nose and mouth: the main pathways through which oxygen and carbon dioxide enter and exit the body.
- The sinuses: hollow spaces in the skull which assist in regulating the temperature of the air we breathe.
- The trachea: a tube in the throat which filters the air after inhalation.
- The bronchi: two tubes connected to the trachea which distribute the air to each lung.
- The cilia: tiny hairs inside the bronchi used to filter out dust, germs and other toxins by way of mucus, which is expelled by sneezing, coughing, spitting, or swallowing.
- The diaphragm: a muscle underneath the lungs used to control breathing.
The body needs a constant supply of oxygen to survive. The average adult takes 12-16 breaths per minute during rest periods and up to 45 breaths per minute during exercise. An infant takes more frequent breaths, somewhere between 20-40 times per minute.
When you inhale, made possible by the work of the diaphragm, oxygen enters the nose and/or mouth and travels through the sinuses. As it goes through these hollow spaces the air is regulated for temperature and humidity. It then passes through the trachea, which filters the air before it goes through the bronchial tubes and into the lungs. The lungs absorb oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.
The lungs are surrounded by thin alveolar walls and small blood vessels called pulmonary capillaries. The blood that flows through these capillaries takes the oxygen and delivers it to cells throughout the entire body. This entire process must stay consistent for survival. Brain cell death begins to occur after only 4 minutes without consistent oxygen.
Respiratory System Diseases
The respiratory system is susceptible to certain ailments due to poor air quality, smoking, genetics, and/or unhealthy lifestyle choices. The following are the most common disease that affect the respiratory system:
Asthma is inflammation of the airways leading to the lungs. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Symptoms may come on suddenly due to a trigger such as pollution, smoke, certain chemicals, sickness/infections, cold air, medications, or exercise. Severe asthma attacks may require hospitalization and oxygen treatments. Inhalers are a common prescription medication used to help control minor symptoms at home.
Bronchitis is usually an illness that causes inflammation of the lungs mucous lining. It can be either acute (temporary) or chronic (long term or recurring). It can cause excessive mucus, shortness of breath, wheezing, fever, and chest tightness.
Emphysema is a condition in which the air sacs in the lungs become damaged, causing difficulty during exhalation. Because smoking damages the lungs, this is the most common cause for emphysema. This disease is progressive and while it can be treated and slowed, it is unfortunately incurable.
Pneumonia occurs when certain bacteria or viruses settle in the lungs. It is a common complication of the flu or colds in those with weak immune systems. It causes inflammation in the air sacs of the lungs and causes symptoms like cough, fever, and breathing trouble. In an otherwise healthy person pneumonia can be treated at home. In young children, elderly, or in those with poor immune system health, hospitalization may be required.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
CORP is a serious condition that consists of the combination of chronic bronchitis, chronic asthma and emphysema. It is a progressive disease that makes it harder over time for a person to breathe. There is no cure for CORD but its progress can be slowed with proper therapy and treatment.
Lung cancer is a growing problem in the United States and affects approximately 200,000 new patients every year. Between 16,000-24,000 die annually due to this type of cancer. It is often related to smoking, but it can affect non-smokers as well. Exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke, radon, diesel exhaust, and other chemicals can also lead to lung cancer.
Lifestyle Factors That Can Increase Risk For Respiratory Issues
Although some respiratory conditions can be genetic or have other causes, most often they are acquired by factors found in a person’s lifestyle. Some examples include:
- An unhealthy diet
- Tobacco use
- Frequent exposure to air pollutants (both indoors and outdoors)
- Obesity and overweight
- Physical inactivity
What Is A Respiratory Therapist?
A respiratory therapist is someone who specializes in respiratory conditions and helps treat patients suffering from a respiratory disease. They may work in hospitals, emergency rooms, pulmonary rehabilitation clinics, sleep disorder centers and even home care settings.
A respiratory therapist can be more helpful than a primary care doctor in some cases as they have a more focused knowledge on the respiratory system and the complex procedures required to more accurately diagnose and treat patients of all ages.
How To Keep The Respiratory System Healthy
Here are the best ways to keep your respiratory system strong and healthy.
- Do not Smoke. Cigarette smoke is one of the leading causes of respiratory disease such as lung cancer. The best way to avoid lung cancer and other breathing problems is to avoid smoking altogether.
- Avoid toxic environments. Become aware of toxic environments and avoid them as much as possible. Some toxic environments include places with lots of dust, harsh chemicals, or second-hand smoke.
- Wash Your Hands. Your hands are the part of your body most likely to pick up germs. If you don’t keep them clean, you will most likely touch your nose, mouth and eyes and introduce these germs to your respiratory system, increasing your likelihood for getting sick. Wash your hands every time you come home, after the bathroom, and after being in a public place. Avoid touching your face if you have been touching surfaces that may contain germs.
- Boost your immune system. Strengthening your immune system makes you a harder target for viruses and respiratory diseases. You can boost your immune system by doing things such as increasing your intake of vitamin C.
- Eat an 80/20 Diet. Try to eat healthy, whole foods 80% of the time. This would include fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, clean meats, healthy fats, herbs, and spices. Then no more than 20% of the time you can enjoy a treat or processed snack.
- Stay Active. Living an active lifestyle helps to keep your respiratory system strong. Your body is made to move and be active. Along with regular exercise, try to incorporate more natural movement into your everyday routines.
- Get Enough High Quality Sleep. Not getting enough sleep weakens your immune system and makes you more susceptible to respiratory illnesses. Sleep for at least 7-8 hours a night in a cool dark environment. Do not use electronics or blue-light 90 minutes before bed. Avoid caffeine after noon.
For more information about the respiratory system and related conditions, see the articles above.